It's human nature: We huddle together in densely packed communities and then complain, Yogi Berra–style, that it's too crowded here. The vast rural-to-urban migration of the past two centuries has left much of the countryside all but vacant. And yet people have also been fleeing the central cities; places such as Buffalo and Cleveland have lost almost half their population. The majority of Americans now live neither in the country nor the city but in the suburban areas of metropolitan counties. It's a slightly puzzling pattern: If we all choose to live near a big city but not in it, who will make the city big?
The waves of population sloshing back and forth between farm and city also wash over the smaller towns and villages of the rural landscape—and perhaps threaten to wash them away. The market towns of the agricultural Midwest and Great Plains are considered especially vulnerable to these demographic tides. A recent series of articles in The New York Times discussed the fate of four such towns under the heading "Vanishing Point: The Empty Heartland." Those articles were hardly the first to note the plight of rural towns; indeed, an essay by Henry J. Fletcher was already predicting "The Doom of the Small Town" in 1895. It's another puzzle: If the towns were doomed 100-plus years ago, how is it they are still in the process of vanishing today?
Some quantitative insight comes from American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century: How It Flourished and What It Cost, a 2002 book by Bruce L. Gardner of the University of Maryland. Gardner summarizes data from several studies of incorporated communities with a population of 1,000 or less. (Only incorporated towns are included because that's what the Census Bureau counts.) It turns out the number of such towns was roughly the same in 1990 as it was in 1910—about 9,500. Of course they are not all the same towns; many have come and gone, and the total number has fluctuated to some extent over the decades. Another study gives a more detailed view for the years from 1940 to 1960, which was the era of steepest decline in farm population. Of 10,099 towns in the under-1,000 category at the start of this period, 8,363 were still on the list at the end, for a loss of 1,736. But only 303 of those missing towns dwindled away to nonexistence; the rest departed the data set not by shrinking but by growing beyond the 1,000-person cutoff. Meanwhile, another 271 towns crossed the boundary in the opposite direction, declining from a larger population to under 1,000. And 1,236 towns in this size class were newly incorporated during the period. The net change resulting from all of these events was a loss of 229 towns, or about 2 percent. These numbers don't seem to support the notion that the small town as a social institution is about to dry up and blow away. If anything, what needs explaining is the remarkable stability and resilience of these communities. In the aggregate they seem to have survived almost unchanged through an unprecedented demographic upheaval.
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